As Dennis Burns sits in a Snowmass restaurant, his cell phone rings.
“Got to take it — it’s my attorney in Argentina,” he apologizes, getting up and walking to where he could have some privacy. Minutes later he returns with a big smile.
“Good news! The attorney said I might have to go down there [Buenos Aires] in the next month for a hearing where the judge will probably order that Ana has to return the girls immediately.”
Phone calls with foreign attorneys, short trips to Buenos Aires, meetings with legislators — this is how Burns, 45, a ski instructor and real estate broker who lives in Snowmass, has lived during the four years since his ex-wife, Ana Alianelli, took their children to Argentina without his permission. Alianelli violated a Garfield County judge’s order that had given Burns primary residential custody after a contentious 13-month legal battle.
“I love my girls so much that I will never give up,” he said. “To have justice, they have to return them. It should be immediately. They have to enforce the order.”
For the past three years, Burns has been fighting to get Argentinian courts to comply with the 1980 Hague Convention treaty on international child abduction. After unsuccessfully going through four different courts there, the Supreme Court of Buenos Aires recently denied the last of appeals by Alianelli, which means the girls will soon return to the United States.
“If Ana is a good mom, she will return with the kids,” he said.
Alianelli could consider herself lucky that Burns didn’t press kidnapping charges against her when she took the girls to Argentina.
“I could have, but I didn’t want any complications with her coming back,” he said. “She says she’ll be in trouble if she comes back, but I’ve told her I didn’t press charges and gave her contacts at the FBI and the State Department to confirm this. But she has never checked with them as far as I know.”
Alianelli didn’t respond to an email requesting comment.
In September 2010, Alianelli, a native of Buenos Aires who met Burns while working in Aspen, took her daughters, Victoria, then 3, and Sophia, then 1, back to Argentina, leaving their home in Aspen Glen without notice. It happened just weeks after a Garfield County judge had declined her requests to allow her to move back to Argentina with her daughters after her divorce.
Alianelli was able to take the girls because she had their Argentine passports even though the judge had ordered her to turn them over to the court at Burns’ request. When they left, Burns filed an application under The Hague treaty, an agreement among countries designed to prevent or resolve cases of international abduction.
Under the treaty, children are supposed to be returned within six to eight weeks after an application is filed and a court gets the case. Argentina became a signatory country in 1991. But it’s been more than three and half years, and Victoria, now 7, and Sophia, 5, are still in Argentina.
“Why do my children and my family have to suffer because Ana manipulates the system?” Burns said. “Argentina isn’t in tune with the Hague Convention. The judges there should enforce the treaty they signed.”
When he saw the reluctance of Argentine courts to comply with the treaty, Burns joined efforts with other parents in the United States to pass legislation that would help expedite cases similar to his.
In December, though he was spending another Christmas away from his children, Burns got some good news: A child abduction bill he backed passed the U.S. House in a 398-0 vote. The Bill, HR3212, which is still pending in the Senate, would ensure compliance with the 1980 Hague Convention on international child abduction “by countries with which the United States enjoys reciprocal obligations by imposing sanctions on them among other things.”
The bill — The Sean and David Goldman International Child Abduction Prevention and Return Act of 2013 — is named after David Goldman, who fought a five-year custody battle for his son, Sean, who had been abducted by his Brazilian mother.
“I’ve been given a lemon tree, and I’m making lemonade,” Burns said. “If this law passes it will change the outcome of other families in the same situation. Abducted children will not have to wait as long as my kids had to to be returned home.”
Burns hasn’t seen or talked to his children now for seven months. He said Alianelli doesn’t allow the court-mandated three-times-per-week Skype calls.
“She’s breaking the laws in Argentina also,” he said. “Ana thinks that laws don’t apply to her. She hasn’t allowed my dad to talk to them either, saying he was harassing them. Judges in Argentina have said the kids have to have contact with their family here as well.”
Though Alianelli didn’t foster a relationship between the girls and Burns’ family, Burns said he will do everything he can to keep Ana and her Argentine family in their lives once the children return to the United States.
In spite of Alianelli’s lack of cooperation these years, and in addition to the burden of paying for all his legal fees and trips to Argentina that now amount to thousands of dollars, Burns has also being supporting the girls financially.
“I do what the court here mandated in 2010,” he said referring to the custody procedures he went though in Garfield County courts. “I worked probably the last 70 days in a row with only one day off.”
These days there is a hint of tranquility when Dennis Burns speaks, the kind one finds in those who have transited a challenging road and are finally approaching their destination. He has done everything he can. He appears to be breathing easily and he smiles again when he plans for the comeback of his girls. He says he can’t wait for them to be home, and he isn’t the only one.
“This town [Snowmass-Aspen] is like a family. Everybody here is so supportive of my situation, my girls. People have done what they can do.”
The one thing that still makes him apprehensive is not knowing what Alianelli could do now that she has lost her battle to keep the girls in Argentina. The girls will suffer no matter what now, he said, but he hopes that Alianelli will cooperate with the prompt and peaceful return of Sophia and Victoria to the U.S.
“I hope Ana at this point will not traumatize them anymore. But she could make a big scene and force us to take them from her,” he said. “I thought about this day for four years, I’ll make the best I can for them.”
Burns also wants to alert parents in similar situations.
“Because we are an international couple,” he said, “she was able to take them out of the country and create an international incident.”